Child marriage remains one of the most horrific human rights violations that exists today. It is estimated that globally 14 million girls are married off before the age of 18, robbing them of their childhood and leaving them vulnerable to violence, poverty, domestic slavery, sexual assault and HIV/AIDS. Child marriage is a human rights violation that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities.
The recent news coverage of the 8-year-old girl who was married off to a 40-year-old man in Yemen, poignantly highlights the desperate need to outlaw child marriage. After their wedding night, the 8-year-old girl – identified as “Rawan” – died from torn genitals and severe bleeding in the northwest city of Hardh. According to media accounts, the fatal injuries were incurred through sexual intercourse. Let me emphasize that it was NOT sexual intercourse. It was rape and it should be clearly understood as so. Rawan’s tragic story is sadly not unique and millions of girls die every year from injuries incurred from sexual violence.
Furthermore, as a result of child marriage, these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Yemen has a high maternal mortality rate of 370 deaths per 100,000 live births. Reproductive health studies show that young women face greater risks in pregnancy than older women, including life-threatening obstructed labour due to adolescents’ smaller pelvises. The shortage of prenatal and postnatal healthcare services, especially in Yemen’s rural areas, place girls’ and women’s lives at risk. An overwhelming majority of Yemeni women still deliver at home, often without the assistance of a skilled birth attendant capable of handling childbirth emergencies. Girls who marry young often have insufficient information on family planning or worse, none at all. As young wives they find it difficult to assert themselves against older husbands to negotiate family planning methods.
Human Rights Watch reports that 14% of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, with 82% married before age 18. Child marriage is in fact legal in Yemen; however, in light of the recent cases and international media attention, Yemen Parliamentarians are calling for new laws which ban child marriage, set the minimum age for marriage at 18 ,and implement strategic measures to effectively enact the law. Speaking in an interview with CNN, Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s human rights minister stated,
Many child marriages take place every year in Yemen. It’s time to end this practice.”
In order to fully eliminate child marriage, awareness raising of the negative impacts of this human rights violation must be conducted. There are a magnitude of elements that contribute to child marriage including lack of awareness and understanding. One father who married off his young daughter spoke to Human Rights Watch and declared that if he knew then what he knows now he would never have married off his daughter.
In many cases, the reality of poverty plays a big role in the decision to marry off a daughter. Here are a few examples of how poverty impacts child marriage:
- Marrying a girl child means one less family member to feed, clothe and educate.
- The bride’s family receives a hefty dowdy/bride price for a young girl, or in those instances where the bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, they often have to pay less money if the bride is young and uneducated. Sometimes the daughters are actually sold to pay off debts.
Another huge determinant of child marriage is tradition. Child marriage is a traditional practice in many countries and cultures around the world, and breaking tradition can alienate families from the rest of the community. However in the words of Graca Machel, member of The Elders and a major contributor to the founding of Girls Not Brides,
Traditions are made by us – and we can decide to change them. We should be respectful but we must also have the courage to stop harmful practices that impoverish girls, women and their communities.”
One 11 year old Yemeni girl decided to break away from tradition and challenged her own parents when they arranged for her to be married to an older man. Nada al-Ahdal caught the attention of the world when she uploaded a three minute video on YouTube after she escaped from your family and took refuge at her uncle’s house.
The world needs more Nada al-Ahdal’s but can we really leave eight, nine, ten, and eleven-year-olds to defend themselves? Nada is one of the rare and lucky girls’ who successfully avoided child marriage but there are millions who are not so lucky. Hence, we need to make a change and advocate for child marriage to be fully outlawed and recognised as a human rights violation. Thousands of NGOs, human rights defenders, women and girls have been advocating to end child marriage for years and, although change will not come over night, we must keep on and remember the Rawan’s of the world.
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